School Justice Project (DC)
While working with young adults in the District of Columbia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems, Claire Blumenson and Sarah Comeau began to notice a disturbing pattern. Both women had received post-graduate legal fellowships to help clients access their rights, work that required a sophisticated understanding of overlapping—and often disparate—rules and requirements across a variety of legal and educational agencies.
“Client after client told us that they had done everything they thought they needed to do to finish certain credits, only to be told that those credits didn’t count or transfer across systems,” says Blumenson. “At first we thought it was a fluke, but we heard the same stories over and over again.” Through seed funding from Echoing Green’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship, they joined forces to launch School Justice Project (SJP) in 2013 with a mission of ensuring that older, court-involved students with disabilities had access to a quality education. SJP uses a three-pronged strategy: provide direct representation and advocacy for individual clients, address systemic issues related to interagency irregularities and inconsistencies, and provide community outreach and legal training on how to integrate special education law into the juvenile and criminal court contexts. SJP’s special education attorneys work to both increase educational equity and decrease mass incarceration.
Blumenson says she is humbled by the fortitude of SJP’s clients, teenagers and young adults who, despite the acute and significant barriers that exist for students in the juvenile and criminal justice system, are determined to earn their high school diplomas or GEDs. For example, students who thought they had completed the required courses toward their diplomas while placed in secure facilities discovered that those credits either didn’t count after all, or counted as partial credits—which DC Public Schools and charter schools don’t accept. “When you have one government agency contradicting another agency, it can feel like a set-up,” says Blumenson. “SJP is able to be effective in part because we can learn from our clients and cite direct client feedback and experiences to advocate for systemic policy changes. Education should be a basic human right, but our country’s education and justice systems were built on inequality.”
The Kenan Charitable Trust provided a grant to SJP to explore how its track record in providing special education legal services could scale. “We knew theoretically that what we were learning in DC could be applied nationally, so it was a really powerful experience to explore how the SJP model could work in other jurisdictions,” says Blumenson. “We are so grateful to have had this opportunity to share our work with others engaged in similar efforts across the country. This is just the beginning.”